Central Asia Digest | February 2020

Political Developments

Violence broke out in Masanchi village in South-East Kazakhstan among local Kazakhs and a group of ethnic Chinese Muslims called Dungans who number more than 150,000 across Central Asia. The rampage, which resulted in 11 deaths, saw hundreds of ethnic Kazakh assailants descend on the Dungans, setting fire to homes, shops and livestock. In the worst such violence since Kazakhstan's independence, at least nine of the dead were Dungans, while one was a Kazakh.  The bloody clashes highlighted the underlying tensions in a region where many ethnic groups live side by side. Some Kyrgyz and Kazakhs argue that Dungans have leveraged their linguistic and cultural heritage to benefit unfairly from trade with China, which floods the region with imports.  Both Kazakhs and Dungans agree that the conflict, which drew in Kazakhs living hundreds of kilometres away, would not have erupted without online messengers that allowed information — and disinformation — to spread rapidly through communities. Thousands fled villages where violence erupted, ending up in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan where the majority of ethnic Dungans in Central Asia traditionally reside. Some 8,000 Kazakh citizens who fled the area to Kyrgyzstan subsequently returned to Kazakhstan following a call from the Kazakh government.

Authorities in Khujand, Tajikistan’s second-largest city, ordered that the city’s largest and most popular mosque be converted into a cinema. The order followed the closure of some 2,000 mosques in the country in the last three years and the arrest last month of scores of Muslim clerics and teachers, many of whom were accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is banned in Tajikistan. Fewer men sport beards in Tajikistan after being harassed by police, while women in hijabs are far and few between after many were detained and intimidated. Imams deliver sermons praising President Emomali Rahmon that are approved by authorities, reinforcing his effort to cloak himself in Islamic legitimacy despite the crackdown. Larger mosques are equipped with surveillance cameras to ensure prayer leaders stick to their texts.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev participated in a panel discussion on ‘’Geography Matters: An Update on Central Asia’’ at the 56th Munich Security Conference in Germany. Tokayev said that like many other countries, Kazakhstan is strongly concerned about terrorism and constantly contributes to fight against this global threat. He expressed Kazakhstan’s support to format Central Asia +1 (C5+1) and said that this will be extremely helpful in bringing safety and security to the region. He welcomed participation of the US, Japan and Korea in the region. He added that Kazakhstan provides humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and is educating 1,000 young people from Afghanistan in Kazakh universities. Kazakhstan also provides scholarships to Afghan women. He met Eurasia Group President as well as President of Afghanistan.

Relations between Tajikistan and Iran which had soured some years ago have started thawing as Tajikistan needs access to ports and Iranian ports, including Chabahar, offer the cheapest and shortest transportation options. Iran’s attractiveness to Central Asian nations increases the Islamic republic’s importance to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure, transportation and energy-driven initiative to connect the Eurasian landmass to Beijing.

US Department of State unveiled its new strategy for Central Asia for next five years with an objective to advance economic development, security, and sovereignty of Central Asian countries as a way to stabilize the region and promote peace. The new document stated that Central Asia has always been the strategic and commercial crossroads between Europe and Asia, and it is important to “U.S. national security interests, regardless of the level of United States involvement in Afghanistan.” US’s primary strategic interest in this region is ‘’to build a more stable and prosperous Central Asia that is free to pursue political, economic, and security interests with a variety of partners on its terms; is connected to global markets and open to international investment, and has strong, democratic institutions, rule of law, and respect for human rights.” US has already provided US$9 billion in financial aid to support security, economic growth, fund educational and cultural programs in Central Asia. At the same time, US private businesses have invested over US$31 billion in commercial ventures in the region. The 5 Objectives of the Strategy are Strengthening of Sovereignty and Regional Connectivity, Countering Terrorism, Stabilization of Afghanistan, Promotion of Rule of Law and Human Rights, and Attracting Foreign Investments, Including US Businesses, into the Region. Three of the six specific goals of the new strategy are related to Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lambasted China for its treatment of its Muslim minorities on his visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Pompeo, who was making the first visit to the region by America's top-ranking diplomat since 2015, apparently left his hosts in Nur-Sultan and Tashkent feeling uncomfortable and drew the ire of China's embassy in Uzbekistan, which leveled accusations of "slander." In Nur-Sultan, Pompeo raised the issue of China's detention of Uighur Muslims and ethnic Kazakhs with his Kazakh counterpart. Pompeo further provoked China by meeting former detainees of what Beijing calls "re-education camps." Pompeo said that they discussed trafficking in persons and plight of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims and ethnic Kazakhs who the Chinese Communist Party has detained in Xinjiang. The issue of the camps is a contentious one in Kazakhstan, which has to balance its relationship with China, its neighbour and second-biggest trading partner, with heightened domestic feelings over the mass detentions in Xinjiang and the treatment of ethnic Kazakhs who have crossed illegally into Kazakhstan from China. Kazakhstan’s trade with China reached US$12.85 billion in January-November 2019, accounting for 13.8% of Kazakhstan's exports and 16.3% of its imports, second only in volume to trade with Russia.

The U.S. is facing an uphill struggle to compete with China for influence in Central Asia. China has invested huge amounts in infrastructure in the region with its Belt and Road Initiative. In contrast, Pompeo promised "a million dollars of assistance to increase trade and connectivity between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan," while in Tashkent.

While unveiling its strategy on Central Asia, USA managed to alienate Kyrgyzstan by including it on its latest travel ban, citing security concerns over its passports. Kyrgyzstan's foreign ministry reacted angrily saying that the decision struck a blow to Kyrgyz-American relations and was "inconsistent with the parties' desire to step up bilateral cooperation."

At a meeting with Pompeo in Tashkent, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister discussed ways of developing bilateral cooperation including joint steps to eliminate visa restrictions. Kyrgyz FM expressed surprise that out of more than 80 countries that have not yet introduced biometric passports, only a few states, including Kyrgyzstan, were selectively limited. This runs counter to understanding of partner support for parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech, which is successfully developing in Kyrgyzstan.

Russia plans to install new air- and missile-defense equipment and drones at its air base near Kyrgyzstan’s northern city of Kant. Russia will renovate runways at the air base to "improve security in the region." 

Turkmenistan’s president has named his only son Serdar to head the country’s newly established ministry for construction and industry. The appointment came days after the President allocated US$1.5 billion for construction of a new city in the province governed by his son. Serdar Berdymukhamedov is widely viewed as being groomed to succeed his father, who has established a cult of personality since becoming Turkmenistan’s leader in 2006. By moving from the regional governorship to the ministerial post, Serdar is likely to gain prominence as the head of costly and visible projects.

Economic Developments

Afghanistan’s President officially inaugurated the CASA-1000 hydro power project, one of the biggest power projects in the region, which will transfer 1,300 megawatts of electricity from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Speaking on the occasion, Ghani said that the project was a step forward towards changing Afghanistan into a hub of energy transit in the region. Afghanistan will receive 300 megawatts and remaining 1,000 megawatts will be transmitted to Pakistan.

Russia and Kazakhstan will coordinate to reach a joint stance on possible further oil output cuts with OPEC and its allies. Kazakhstan hasn't reached a final decision whether it will join deeper oil output cuts recommended by OPEC and non-OPEC's Joint Technical Committee. He said that oil exports to China are still suspended and there are no plans to resume them for now.

Volume of direct foreign investment in Kazakhstan increased by 15.8% year-on-year in the period January-September, 2019 reaching US$8.7 billion. EU is one of key investors and largest trading partner of Kazakhstan. Agreement on Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation between Kazakhstan and the EU which will become effective from June, 2020 will mark the beginning of a qualitatively new stage in Kazakh-European relations. The document covers 29 areas of activity, including trade, investment, innovation and infrastructure development. At the next meeting of Dialogue on Investment Cooperation between Kazakhstan and EU in April 2020, it is planned to discuss specific steps to implement the agreement, transition of Kazakhstan to a green economy and preparations for the upcoming 12th WTO Ministerial Conference in Nur Sultan in June 2020. 

India-Central Asia Relations 

A Kazakh delegation of defense enterprises led by Vice-Minister of Industry and Infrastructure Development attended the 11th Defense and Expo 2020 International Exhibition of Land and Naval Arms in Lucknow. During the visit the Vice-Minister met the Indian State Minister of Defense, Chief of General Staff of Armed Forces and about 10 large defense enterprises. Deepening of cooperation in naval sphere was discussed, in particular an increase in exports of Kazakhstan’s S.M. Kirov Machine-Building Plant, which is already carrying out repairs and naval service in India. Possibility of repair and maintenance of armoured vehicles and missile and artillery weapons and joint production of protective equipment was discussed. Attention was also paid to attracting Indian investments in Kazakh defense industry. Indian Minister of State of Defense received an invitation to visit the International Exhibition of Arms and Military-Technical Equipment KADEX-2020, to take place 28-31 May 2020 in Nur-Sultan.  Both Ministers noted that Cooperation in the field of defence industry forms an important part of strategic partnership between the countries.

Chief of General Staff of Kyrgyz Armed Forces and Defence Minister of Kyrgyzstan met Raksha Mantri and discussed a wide range of issues pertaining to bilateral defence cooperation. In a significant decision, both leaders agreed that the Joint Exercise involving Special Forces of India and Kyrgyzstan named Khanjar VII shall be held soon in India. It was also decided that the first Joint Working Group between the two countries on Defence Cooperation would be held within the next 2-3 months. RM said that India with its huge market base, recent technological advancements, software know-how and a fast-developing defence industry, is fully equipped to act as a facilitator and collaborator in the area of defence manufacturing.

Government of India and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) together launched the India-Central Asia Business Council. The nominated chambers from India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan came together to collaborate and provide an industry view to the governments of the six countries. External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar who was present at the launch called it a “significant step” especially in view of the fact that “despite excellent bilateral relations, it is a matter of concern that India’s combined annual trade with the five Central Asian countries remains well below two billion US dollars.” He recommended the Council to examine the viability of establishing air corridors between India and Central Asia to boost trade in perishable goods, agricultural and food products. Recalling that India shares both geography and civilizational relationship with the region, the minister said the government hoped the Council will help promote investment and opportunities which have remained untapped. The Council, he revealed, has prioritized discussions on energy, pharmaceuticals, automotive, agro-processing, education and urban infrastructure and transport, civil aviation, IT and tourism. Jaishankar acknowledged that there is a challenge of lack of efficient overland connectivity, which he said, will be overcome through the Chabahar port in Iran. It will be the “fulcrum of connectivity for Indian goods to reach Afghanistan and further north and for the landlocked Central Asia to find access to the ocean,” he said. In the Union Budget, the government has allocated Rs 100 crore for the port this year. India will also continue working on International North South Transport Corridor (NSTC) and the Ashgabat Agreement. He called upon Indian businesses to take greater interest in the Central Asian market and expressed hope that “India’s economic growth in our extended neighbourhood would grow exponentially in the coming years.’’ India, Iran and Afghanistan believe that Chabahar will become the fulcrum of connectivity for Indian goods to reach Afghanistan and further north to Central Asian states and for the landlocked Central Asia to find access to ocean through this port. Dr Sangita Reddy, President, FICCI, said the India-Central Asia Business Council will constitute four Working Groups in areas of energy; Agro, Food Processing and textiles; Tourism and Pharmaceutical and Life-sciences. The council is an outcome of the India-Central Asian dialogue held in Samarkand in January 2019.

Uzbekistan participated as Partner Country in the 34th Surajkund Mela in Haryana from 1st-15th February, 2020. A large number of craftsmen from Uzbekistan participated in the event to showcase the masterpieces of their craftsmanship. Craftsmen from Kazakhstan also took part in the Surajkund Mela.

Air Astana will launch services between Almaty and Mumbai on 1st June, 2020. Flights will be operated four times a week using Airbus A320, with a sector time of 4.5 hours in each direction. Mumbai will be Air Astana’s second destination in India, with services to Delhi having been operated since 2004.

Star India’s Kullfi Kumarr Bajewala (Kulfi Kumar the Singing Star), a drama about a small girl who hears music in everything around her, has been licenced to Kazakhstan’s Astana TV. Kulfi airs on Astana TV weekdays at 10 pm. The series tells the story of a girl who is reunited with her father, who did not know she existed.

India is home to cheapest mobile data plans in the world, with 1GB of data costing an average of Rs 18.5 (US$0.26). Kyrgyzstan is a close second with 1GB costing US$0.27 on average. It's followed by Kazakhstan (US$0.49) in third place, with Russia on 12th spot (US$0.91/GB).


(The views expressed are personal)


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About the Author

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar

Former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia; President, Institute of Global Studies and Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar belongs to the Indian Foreign Service and has acquitted his responsibilities in the diplomatic service for 34 years. He was Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia and has worked in senior diplomatic positions in Indian Embassies/Missions in Washington DC, Brussels, Moscow, Geneva, Tehran, Dhaka and Bangkok and also at Headquarters in India. He negotiated for India in the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations and in negotiations for India-EU, India-ASEAN and India-Thailand Free Trade Agreements.

He contributed significantly to strengthening strategic ties and promoting cultural cooperation between India and USA, EU, Russia and other countries.Ambassador Sajjanhar worked as head of National Foundation for Communal Harmony to promote amity and understanding between different religions, faiths and beliefs. Ambassador Sajjanhar has been decorated by Governments of Kazakhstan and Latvia with their National Awards and by Universal Peace Federation with Title of ''Ambassador of Peace.'' Currently Ambassador Sajjanhar is President of Institute of Global Studies, New Delhi. He writes, travels and speaks extensively on issues relating to international relations, foreign policy and themes of contemporary relevance and significance. He appears widely on TV panel discussions. Ambassador Sajjanhar is interested in reading, music and travelling. His wife Madhu is an economist and an educationist. They have a son and a daughter both of who are accomplished singers. Their son passed out of Yale University and their daughter is pursuing her PhD at University of Minnesota.